New Report Finds Super Rich Around the World have Avoided Paying Taxes on More Than $21 Trillion of Hidden Wealth
Interview with James S. Henry, lead researcher for Tax Justice Network report, “The Price of Offshore Revisited,” conducted by Scott Harris. This interview was previously broadcast in the program posted on Aug. 1, 2012
During last year’s presidential election one of the central debates between Democrats and Republicans – between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, was over how much should the nation’s wealthiest citizens have to pay in federal taxes. On that issue polls found most voters in favor of letting the Bush era tax cuts lapse for the wealthy, while retaining tax cuts for families earning $250,000 dollars and under annually. But a July 2012 report undertaken by the Tax Justice Network paints a disturbing picture of tax avoidance, finding that the super rich in the U.S. and around the world are hiding at least $21 trillion dollars in offshore accounts, avoiding paying millions of dollars in taxes in their home countries.
In their report titled, “The Price of Offshore Revisited,” the Tax Justice Network found that the wealth hidden in tax shelters is equivalent to the United States and Japanese economies combined. While the public is familiar with tax havens in banks located on far off exotic islands, the report found that UBS, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs are among the top private banks managing offshore accounts for the world’s wealthiest people.
The authors of the report, relying on data from the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations, central banks, the Bank for International Settlements and other sources, concluded that the impact of unpaid taxes is staggering, where global financial inequality is much greater than originally estimated and growing. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with the lead author of the report, James S. Henry, a former chief economist with McKinsey & Company, who summarizes his investigation, tax cheating’s effect on inequality and how governments can reform banking regulations to capture billions in lost tax revenue.
JAMES S. HENRY: Well, the headline number is $21 trillion of offshore private financial wealth – that’s bonds, stocks, as well as bank deposits on alternate investments like hedge funds. It doesn’t include so-called non-financial assets like real estate, art collections, yachts and intellectual property. There’s an important offshore market there as well. Most of the city of London is actually owned offshore at this point through offshore companies. But what we’re focusing on here is just financial wealth. Much of this is concentrated in the hands of about 10 million people at most around the planet. And the growth of the activity has been accounted for by a relative handful of major international banks which have made it a business to help the wealthiest people on the planet take their money out of their home countries, invest it abroad tax-free and use a variety of schemes to defend it against taxation.
The havens that we all hear about – the so-called “Treasure Islands” like the Caymans, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Panama and Jersey – these are really to be thought of mainly as conduits in this system. The real destination havens for this capital and the place that actually ends up being invested are the major financial centers of the world. New York, London, Zurich and Geneva, Belgium is another one, Lichtenstein. These are places that people actually end up investing their capital. Nobody wants to have their funds sitting in Tortola or Bahamas for very long. So they use shell companies that are registered in places like Cayman Islands or Bahamas and then the ultimate investments are made in these major countries.
BETWEEN THE LINES: James, briefly please tell our listeners a little bit about how these offshore tax havens contribute to income inequality, in the United States, particularly.
JAMES S. HENRY: Well, I think if it is possible for the wealthy to basically go back to the 1920s and roll back the clock to the days before really progressive income taxation, effectively legislating themselves a tax cut by taking funds offshore. It’s hard reduce your tax rate below zero; those practices are things that ordinary folks have a hard time keeping up with. So small business has a hard time, for example, taking advantage of the off-shoring of intellectual property that companies like Google, Microsoft and Pfizer and other leading technology companies have used. They basically park their intellectual property in Bermuda or Ireland and then pay themselves royalties that are not taxed. And then they come back to the U.S. government and ask for a tax break when they repatriate all these profits they’ve off-shored back to the United States. So that’s in the corporate world and that’s separate from the price of offshore revisited. We’re talking there about corporate and this is about individuals. But there’s a lot of ways in which this haven architecture has been abused and affects the distribution of wealth. One of them is on the corporate side. On the individual side, it’s basically an invitation to the more aggressive members of the wealthiest class to hide money offshore and to not report it in the home country and basically avoid any tax burden at all. Effectively, there’s a lot of Romneys out there, and he’s just one of many folks, probably not even the most aggressive in terms of this practice.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s been the reaction to this report? And are there any viable solutions here in terms of reining these tax shelters through international treaties or such? I wish it was simple, but I’m sure it’s not. You’ll probably tell me that.
JAMES S. HENRY: We’ve seen a tremendous response from all over the globe. We’ve had inquiries from India, Russia, journalists in Argentina, Chile. This is a global story. It’s kind of unprecedented, the response we’ve had, and I’ve been studying this field since the 1980s. I wrote my first piece on this in 1986. And I’ve been waiting for any kind of interest on the part of policymakers. What to do about it? There are many things we can do to clamp down on the worst abuses. We can have automatic information reporting, which the United States has with its friends in Canada and UK, but it doesn’t extend now to Mexico.
The Mexican finance minister asked Tim Geithner to help share the same information on Mexican investors that he was giving to the Canadians and he got no response. You know that automatic information reporting on offshore earnings is an important step forward. I think that regulating pirate banking and the kind of misbehavior of the big banks here is something we ought to consider.
And then, it may be possible to get people to agree on a minimal tax while we’re waiting for tougher enforcement, just a .5 percent of what’s parked in the banks now would generate enough to pay the entire foreign aid bill from the OECD. So at least we’d get something from all the offshore tax evasion, the drug money, all the dirty money that’s sitting in these offshore accounts while we’re waiting for tighter enforcement.
James S. Henry is a former chief economist with McKinsey & Company and lead author of the Tax Justice Network report, “The Price of Offshore Revisited.” Find links to the report and related articles at TaxJustice.net.
mp3 Interview with James S. Henry, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, July 30, 2012 (25:13)
“The Price of Offshore Revisited,” report at TaxJustice.net
“We don’t have a Huge Debt problem – we have a Huge Tax Haven problem,” Daily Kos, July, 29, 2012
“Exhaustive Study Finds Global Elite Hiding Up to $32 Trillion in Offshore Accounts,” Democracy Now, July 31, 2012
“Super Rich Hide $21 Trillion in Our ‘Offshore Economy,” Salon.com blog, July 24, 2012
“Tax cheats should pay their share,” The Daily Star, July 28, 2012
“GOP and Big Winners of Trickle-Down Policies Now Charge They are Victims of ‘Class Warfare,'” Between The Lines, Sept. 28, 2011
“Rising Economic Inequality Provokes Search for Practical, Democratic Alternatives,” Between The Lines, Jan. 6, 2012
Economists and pundits tell us that the U.S. economy is slowly healing after the near collapse ushered in by the housing bubble bursting in 2007/2008. And while the unemployment rate was down a little in May to a four-year low of 7.5 percent, the “real” unemployment rate, which counts the underemployed and discouraged workers is 13.8 percent of the workforce. The “Great Recession,” exposed the unpleasant reality of many of the longstanding downward trends in the American economy, where the Middle Class is shrinking, income and wealth inequality is rising and families are struggling to buy or keep their homes, pay health care bills and afford college tuition.
The partisan gridlock in Washington also reveals a political system where more often than not, those with the most money and power win elections and determine public policy mostly benefiting the elite. The Occupy Wall Street movement born in 2011 was an expression of this malaise, calling attention to a broken system urgently in need of repair.
Into this bleak scene, where many citizens have come to believe that America’s best days are behind us, Gar Alperovitz, Prof. of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, tells us there are many reasons to be hopeful. In his new book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution,” Alperovitz examines innovative, democratic and sustainable alternatives to America’s current failing system. Between The Lines’ Scott harris spoke with Alperovitz about new democratically-owned enterprises that are thriving across the nation, such as worker-owned cooperatives, credit unions, public banks and utilities.
For more information on the book and the future of worker and publicly-owned enterprises, visit The Democracy Collaborative at democracycollaborative.org.
mp3 Interview with Gary Alperovitz, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, May 6, 2013 (24:11)
“What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution,” WhatThenMustWeDo.org, website for Gar Alperovitz’s book
Gar Alperovitz’s website at GarAlperovitz.com
The Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, Ohio at EvergreenCooperatives.com
Democracy At Work at DemocracyatWork.info
“‘Real’ Jobless Rate Still Above 10% Percent In Most States,” CNBC.com, May 1, 2013
“Payrolls in U.S. Rise 165,000 as Unemployment Rate Drops,” Bloomberg.com, May 3, 2013
“Worker-Owners of America, Unite!” New York Times, Dec. 14, 2011
The year 2012 is on track to be the hottest in recorded history, while high temperatures and drought conditions have been linked to destructive forest fires and other natural disasters that are exactly the kinds of occurrences that climate scientists have predicted will come with global warming.
Yet, the June Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which commemorated the first Earth Summit held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, was widely criticized as a failure for producing an international agreement which lacks enforceable commitments to confront and reverse climate change.
Mark Hertsgaard, author of “Earth Odyssey,” reports on the environment for The Nation magazine, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and other publications. His newest book is titled, “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth,” which he wrote for his daughter’s generation. Hertsgaard says after his daughter Chiara was born seven years ago, he became even more adamant about addressing climate change and holding to account the political and business leaders who ignore the Earth’s and its people’s plight. In his book, he notes that climate change has arrived almost a century ahead of predictions. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mark Hertsgaard about the worsening weather and environmental conditions connected with climate change and a new group he’s organizing called Climate Parents.
MARK HERTSGAARD: Yeah, we are living with climate change now. It’s going to get worse simply because of the physical inertia of the climate system, the fact that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for decades after it’s emitted. So we’ve got a big job in front of us, there’s no doubt. And meanwhile, we’ve got the president of the U.S. not saying a word about global warming, even though he knows very well what the science tells him. We don’t see any real leadership coming from the national level, so I think, as always in history, it’s going to rely on people from the bottom organizing together and forcing their leaders to do what’s right. And that’s something I’m getting started now with a group called Climate Parents — we want to try to organize and mobilize parents around the climate issue because it – climate change – certainly endangers the thing we all hold most dear in our lives, and that’s our kids.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Say more about Climate Parents.
MARK HERTSGAARD: Climate Parents is a new group that a number of us are just beginning now, and its agenda is simple: We think parents are the most under-organized constituency on climate change, which is quite bizarre when you think about what’s at stake for our kids. And so what we want to do is give voice and political impact to parents across the country and across the partisan political spectrum. We don’t believe that climate change should be a partisan political issue, because we think all parents want to have a safe and healthy future for their kids. But we also think that dealing with the climate issue now is part of your job description as a parent, just like providing your kid with proper food and clothing and shelter and health care and all those things, climate change and dealing with it is part of the job description of being a parent, because we now know that my daughter, Chiara, who’s 7 years old – she and the rest of her generation – are now fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with what will be the hottest and most volatile climate in the 10,000 years of human civilization.
So you can think of today’s young people as what I call Generation Hot, and we owe it to them, having put them in this predicament. We owe it them as their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles and anyone who cares about young people. We owe it to them to try and find the ways to let them cope with this problem successfully. And let’s emphasize here, we know how to deal with climate change. We have the solutions; we know what to do technologically. It’s all there – solar and wind power and geothermal and energy efficiency and all of the other solutions – I go into them in great depth in my book, “Hot.”
The problem is the lack of political will and the fact that our government is under the control of very large business interests who profit from the current situation, you know, the oil companies, the coal companies, natural gas… It is remarkable, and bizarre, that our tax dollars are now being spent, in the billions, to subsidize ExxonMobil, the single richest, most profitable corporation in human history. We are subsidizing them to wreck the climate for our kids.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Mark Hertsgaard, so this is a group to apply political pressure on officials?
MARK HERTSGAARD: We do think that it does have to be political involvement. It’s nice, and it’s important as a first step, for a family to change their lifestyle choices and consumption patterns. So maybe you take mass transit more often than the car, or eat less meat and more vegetables, take the bicycle – there are a lot of personal lifestyle changes that you can make, and those are useful, but they are much, much less than what’s necessary to solve this problem.
As long as we have this economic system, and rules of the road economically that essentially allow carbon dioxide pollution to be emitted for free, nobody pays a price for that, certainly not the corporations, or us the consumers. It’s not incorporated into the price; indeed, as I said, we’re subsidizing oil and coal and natural gas. As long as that’s the case, we can’t make much difference. We’ve got to change the main drivers of climate change, and those are the government policies and the business practices of today’s world. We can do this; we know how to do this. It’s a matter of changing the big political decisions, and that requires people to get involved in politics. I know, for some people, that’s about as enticing a prospect as getting a root canal. But I just would remind you – especially if you’re a parent or a grandparent – there are a lot of things we don’t feel like doing, but we do them because they will make a difference for our kids.
Learn more about Climate Parents and the effects of climate change on weather and the environment at ClimateParents.org.
MarkHertsgaard.com, Mark Hertsgaard’s blog
“HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth,” Mark Hertsgaard’s new book
“Climate and the Politics of Hope,” Blog at Thoreau Farm,by Wen Stephenson, April 25, 2012
“Scientists attribute extreme weather to man-made climate change,” The Guardian, July 10, 2012
“Forest Fires Linked in Many Ways to Climate Change,” Earth Island Journal, July 10, 2012
“RIO+20 The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD),” United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development 2012
“THE FUTURE WE WANT: Our Common Vision,” United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development 2012
“Climate Scientists Now Connect Extreme Weather with Global Climate Change,” Between The Lines, May 18, 2011